The main reason that stuck with me was the term “free-born”. There’s a pretty simple answer to why it is still used in our ritual. To quote Chris Hodapp’s explanation of the term that he gives in his seminal work: Freemasonry for Dummies:
“The term “free-born” is a holdover from the days when slavery, indentured servitude, and bonding were common. It means that a man must be his own Master and not be bound to another man. That’s not a problem these days, but the language is retained because of its antiquity and a desire to retain the heritage of the Fraternity.”However, in reading “A Lecture on Various Rituals of Freemasonry” by Rev George Oliver D.D., while he is explaining the Prestonian Entered Apprentice Lectures, I found another interesting explanation.
The third clause of the Prestonian Entered Apprentice Lecture as given by Oliver is as follows:
"Q. What kind of man ought a Free and Accepted Mason to be?
A. A free man, born of a free woman, brother to kings and companion to princes, if Masons
Q. Why Free?
A. That the vicious habits of slavery might not contaminate the true principles on which Masonry is founded.
Q. A second reason
A. Because the Masons who were chosen to build King Solomon’s Temple were declared free, and exempted from all imposts, duties, and taxes. Afterward, when this temple had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, the good-will of Cyrus gave them permission to erect a second temple, he having set them at liberty for that purpose. It is from this epoch that we bear the name of Free and Accepted Masons.
Q. Why brother to kings and companion to princes?
A. A king in the Lodge, is reminded, that although a crown may adorn his head, and a scepter his hand, the blood in his veins is derived from the common parent of mankind, and is no better than that of the meanest subject. The statesman, the senator and the artist are there taught that, equally with others, they are, by nature, exposed to infirmity and disease; and that an unforeseen misfortune, or a disordered frame, may impair their faculties, and level them with the most ignorant of their species. This cheeks pride, and incites courtesy of behaviour. Men of inferior talents, who are not placed by fortune in such exalted stations, are instructed in the Lodge to regard their superiors with peculiar esteem; when they discover them voluntarily divested of the trappings of external grandeur, and condescending, in the badge of innocence and bond of friendship, to trace Wisdom, and follow virtue, assisted by those who are of a rank beneath them. Virtue is true nobility, and Wisdom is the channel by which Virtue is directed and conveyed; Wisdom and Virtue only mark distinction among Masons.
Q. Whence originated the phrase – born of a free Woman?
A. At the grand festival which was given by Abraham at the weaning of his son Isaac. Afterwards, when Sarah, the wife of Abraham, beheld Ishmael, the son of Hagar the Egyptian bondwoman, teasing and perplexing her son, she remonstrated Abraham, saying, Put away that bondswoman and her son, for such as they cannot inherit with the free-born. She spoke as being endowed with divine inspiration; well knowing, that if the lads were brought up together, Isaac might imbibe some of Ishmael’s slavish principles; it being universally acknowledged that the minds of slaves are much more contaminated than those of the free-born.
Q. Why those equalities amongst Freemasons?
A. We are all equal by our creation, but much more so by the strength of our obligation."A few things stood out to me in the above. The first is that a man should be free so “That the vicious habits of slavery might not contaminate the true principles on which Masonry is founded.” To try to understand this, I took a look at the definitions of vicious and habits. One of the definitions of vicious is: “Having the nature of vice; evil, immoral, or depraved.” One of the definitions of habit is: “An established disposition of the mind or character.” This seems to point towards a belief at that time that slaves would be of immoral character.
This belief would seem to be backed up by the answer to the question which asks the origin of the term free woman.
”She spoke as being endowed with divine inspiration, well knowing that if the lads were brought up together, Isaac might imbibe some of Ishmael’s slavish principles; it being universally acknowledged that the minds of slaves are much more contaminated than those of the free-born.”Why would it be universally acknowledged that the minds of slaves are much more contaminated than those of the free-born? I think it’s impossible for me to answer that as I am not from that time. I have to suspect that the answer that Chris Hodapp gave above, which is the idea that a slave would not be able to be his own Master, is most likely the closest answer that we could hope to find. It might also be worth mentioning that this might also be a remnant of the speculative craft coming from the operative one. For at the time, operative masons would not be willing to share the secrets of their craft with anyone who would not be able to protect them. A slave, bonds-man, or indentured servant could be ordered by their Master to give those secrets to them. Therefore, for the same reasons, speculative masons would not want anyone who would not be able to protect the secrets to be a member.
Looking at the last question: “Why those equalities amongst Freemasons?” The answer which is given: “We are all equal by our creation, but much more so by the strength of our obligation.” This answer is a moving tribute to the essential idea of our brotherhood that we are brothers due to our obligation. However, it also demonstrates why the idea of someone not being free-born would be detrimental to the craft. This becomes clearer in the fourth clause of Preston’s lectures with this question and answer.
Q. Since you brought no other recommendations, what came you here to do?
A. Not my own will and pleasure, but to learn to rule and govern my passions, to be obedient to the Master’s will to keep a tongue of good report, to practise secrecy, and make further progress in the study of Freemasonry.Oliver mentions that “This clause has been introduced to illustrate the subordination necessary to ensure the observance of strict discipline in the Lodge”. As Matthew 6:24 says: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” So it would be impossible to be obedient to the Master of the Lodge, as well as the Master that owned you. In order to avoid potential disharmony in the Lodge, it would be essential that only free-born men would be able to join.
Regardless of the original reasons, we thankfully live in an age where this is no longer a concern. However, for our brethren that lived in a time that such abhorrent things were still practiced, it was a concern. I think part of the reason that it has remained in our ritual is as a reminder that we should not enter Freemasonry due to any mercenary motives. We are asked several times during our degrees if our reason for seeking Masonic advancement is of our own free will and accord. If it is was not, then you would not be free-born, even if you were born free. You would be joining for reasons other than those of your own volition. This is what our brethren from Preston’s time and before were trying to avoid by keeping those not free-born from the Fraternity.
WB Darin A. Lahners is the Worshipful Master of St. Joseph Lodge No.970 in St. Joseph and a plural member of Ogden Lodge No. 754 (IL), and Homer Lodge No. 199 (IL). He’s a member of the Scottish Rite Valley of Danville, a charter member of the new Illinois Royal Arch Chapter, Admiration Chapter No. 282, and is the current Secretary of the Illini High Twelve Club No. 768 in Champaign – Urbana (IL). He is also a member of the Eastern Illinois Council No. 356 Allied Masonic Degrees. You can reach him by email at email@example.com.